Sex and the sect: the infamous Brethren

You can never completely leave a religious cult, as this strange and touching memoir demonstrates. Patterns of thinking, turns of mind, will linger with and haunt former members long after they escape.

Rebecca Stott was born in 1964 into the Brethren, a low-church sect that had broken away from the Anglican church in the early 19th century and then broken away from itself, bifurcating into factions as movements set on purity and unity usually do.

Cult is a strong word, but Stott’s branch of the Brethren really earned it. Her great grandfather, a sail-maker, joined the Brethren in Eyemouth, a fishing village not far from where I grew up in Northumberland. Back then the Brethren there was founded on frustration with the tax-collecting Kirk.

By the time Rebecca was born, down south in Hove, it was no longer a righteous protest movement. Any brotherly Brethren love had evaporated and the elders, among them Rebecca’s charismatic father, Roger, had taken to shunning and persecuting. It had become, says Stott: ‘One of the most reclusive and savage Protestant sects in history.’ Inevitably, its leader was a sex pest.

When Rebecca was eight, JT Jr, the then head of the church, indulged in a little spree that became known as ‘the Aberdeen episode’. On the eve of some great church council, he drunk himself into a stupor, then demanded that any attractive Brethren wives be delivered to him in bed. Some women went willingly. Some elders offered up their wives.

For Roger Stott, the Aberdeen episode was a deal-breaker. ‘It was like waking up from a prolonged bad dream,’ he told his daughter. He left the church and, though it cost him his job and his friends, exposed JT’s hypocrisy to as many members as would listen. Oh, for Scientologists in the mould of Roger Stott.

Roger celebrated his freedom by listening to the Beatles. His wife joined the Anglican church. For Rebecca, eight, and her siblings the break wasn’t as clean. No one had thought to tell young Rebecca, after they left the Brethren, that the End Times were no longer on their way. So:

I’d stand with my back to the wall in the playground watching the children [in her new, normal school] skipping rope, singing their complicated rhymes, and I’d be conjuring Tribulation scenarios, imagining tidal waves sweeping across the tarmac, storms tearing down the playground walls and trees, the four horsemen galloping across the rooftops, lights out and sea levels rising.

In the Days of Rain is a double memoir: it describes both Rebecca’s own childhood and her father Roger’s life. It is not, though, in any way a misery memoir and that’s what makes it such an attractive and interesting book. Perhaps the publisher longed for a fashionable denunciation of faith. Instead In the Days of Rain feels almost nostalgic for the original, raw, faith of her forefathers.

As she tells their tale, Stott hears the ghostly chorus of dead Brethren aunts:

I hear them gathering in the wings…They’re telling me to look at the pornography, the internet, the self-harm, the levels of depression and the empty churches. These are all signs of Satan’s dominion, sure signs of his evil working in the world. These women have my big bones and wild hair; they are serene gracious dignified…They’d tell a different story if I let them.

My feeling is that in a soft, barely audible way, she has let them. Their different story is a whispered counterpoint.

Stott, though an atheist now, seems almost fey, otherworldly. As her father lies dying she says, ‘It’s coming’ without knowing quite what:

I opened the window and we each picked up one of my father’s great gnarled hands, just as the owl passed by the front door, just as my father took his last breath.

After Roger’s death, she feels his spectral presence, urging her to write their shared story. She sees him in a swarm of wasps that pursues her through his garden.

She has me seeing signs too. A pair of Stott twins were my dearest childhood friends. We grew up just down the road from the bones of Rebecca’s Stott ancestors. It makes me feel oddly close to this lovely book.